Diné Policy Institute Position Paper 1

Diné Policy Institute

Position Paper 1

Uranium andDiné Binitsekees

An Analysis of the direct and

in-direct consequences of uranium

using Navajo principles.

Prepared by:

Moroni Benally, Policy Analyst

Andrea Speen, Research Intern

Carol Goldtooth, Research Intern


The legacy uranium mining left on the Navajo Nation has been one of gloom and darkness. It has been estimated that from 1994-1986, 3.9 million tons of uranium ore was mined from the Navajo Nation.[1] The consequence of this uranium mining has been felt locally and internationally. As of 1990, 500-600 uranium miners on Navajo Nation have succumbed to death because of lung cancer and other illnesses associated with radon exposure. It has been estimated that at the end of 2000 another 500-600 miners have died.[2]Furthermore, the uranium ore mined had directly contributed the development of the Atomic bomb (through the Manhattan Project), the Cold War arms race and concomitantly to the present proliferation of nuclear arms.

While most present studies and reports on uranium and the Navajo Nation focus on the

health implications of uranium mining, few focus on the broader implications of that mining. Many reports appear narrowly focused on the health aspects such as those listed above. And it was these health aspects that appeared to be what motivated (in part) the passage and adoption of the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005: “The purpose…is to ensure that no further damage to the culture, society, and economy of the Navajo Nation occurs because of uranium mining…”[3] While this act is laudable and should be supported for its strong stance against uranium mining: “No person shall engage in uranium mining and uranium processing on any sites within Navajo Indian Country,”[4] further policy issues must be considered.

The Diné Policy Institute is a policy and research “think-tank” on the Navajo Nation which analyzes issues from the traditional philosophical paradigm of Sa’ah Naghai Bik’e Hozhoon (SNBH). SNBH is a philosophy of living that tends toward walking a balanced life, with longevity and resilience. While this simplistic definition offers some guidance, it necessarily needs clarification. SNBH is a paradigm that is under-girded and informed by k’é. K’é is a principle that sustains harmony. From the Navajo cosmogony, it is clear that k’é is the moving principle of all living things. Hence the Fundamental Laws of the Diné posit, “All creation, from Mother Earth and Father Sky to the animals, those who live in water, those who fly and plant life have their own laws and have rights and freedoms to exist…The rights and freedoms of the people to use the sacred elements of life…must be accomplished through…respect…to protect and preserve the beauty of the natural world for future generations.”[5] The Fundamental Law assumes k’éas its central feature.Thus, the language of freedom, rights and protection is also the language of k’é.

Therefore, while considering the consequences of uranium mining and its subsequent ban, DPI, using Diné binistik’ees, must see this issue from the perspective of k’é, or as has been taught, k’é bil naast’í. Thus the first observation requires that concern move outward from the immediate family to all the living world. Using this specific principle of k’é, we look at the proximate familial impacts, that is how uranium has affected the Navajo Nation family. The we look at the global, international impact.

Historical Background

Navajo Nation

One study in the American Journal of Public Health “found excess mortality for lung cancer, pneumoconiosis and other respiratory diseases, and tuberculosis for Navajo uranium miners.”[6] Other studies indicate “the full extent of the consequences of uranium mining among Navajo has not been characterized.”[7] This same study found that “uranium mining contributed substantially to lung cancer occurrence among Navajo men…following the end of mining on the Navajo Nation.”[8]

Another study showed that 22 years after leaving uranium mining, an individuals “risk of developing lung cancer due to radon progeny was 100-fold greater than if he had never mined uranium.”[9] These studies and numerous other studies show that cancer is directly correlated with uranium mining and radiation exposure. The implied consequence then is that uranium mining can be directly implicated in the deaths of many citizens of the Navajo Nation.

With this result, Navajo thinking must engage the consequences of loss of life. For many the death of a former uranium miner meant the loss of a husband, father, brother, grandfather, uncle, mentor and primary provider of not only temporal needs but emotional and spiritual needs.

One need only the hear the lived experience of Sarah Begay of Monument Valley, Utah while speaking of her late husband Leonard. The Begay’s live near an abandoned uranium mine. “Leonard knew what to expect. Sarah’s father, a veteran of the mines, had died of lung cancer the month before. ‘He was aware that he was going,’ Sarah recalled. ‘He would talk to me: Take care of yourself. Stay in the Word. Take the kids to church.’ He kept hugging and kissing his family…Sarah said he instructed her ‘to build a house for the kids and then for the grandkids that he’ll never see.’ On Dec. 19, he died. He was 42.”[10] This particular instance describes the situation where one exposed to radiation was not a miner, but simply lived near uranium tailings, and abandoned mines.

These health instances are not only confined to abandoned mines, but these mines have contaminated potable water sources for human and animal consumption. “Ingestion of contaminated water has been identified as the exposure pathway of greatest concern. EPA sampled 226 water sources in the vicinity of radiation sources for uranium…of which, 90 water sources were found to pose elevated health risks.”[11]These contaminated water sources pass radiation to humans and livestock.

A study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found that “on average, each miner lost 1.5 years of potential life due to mining-related lung cancer, or almost 3 months of life for each year employed in uranium mining.”[12] The implication of this study is that life has been lost as a result of uranium, directly for the miner and indirectly to those who survive. While compensation is some measure of recompense for the United States’[13] involvement in the uranium history, it does not bring a sense of harmony back. In other words, while this act of the federal government may fall in line with some conceptions of justice, it fails to comport with the Navajo understanding of reciprocation as delineated by k’é. However, k’é is not ignorant of both monetary and non-monetary costs involved and the parameters and limitations of complete reciprocation.

Thus with the principle of k’é, a brief history was provided that focused on proximate familial relations to the nation-level. This next section will focus on the global history as it relates to uranium.


Some of the first known uranium claims in the Southwest were made in 1920 by John and Jim Wade in Sweetwater, Navajo Nation, “and it was these same claims…including some major companies like VCA and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) would return twenty-five years later in search for uranium for atomic weapons.”[14] The Navajo Nation would allow these uranium seekers back twenty-five years later following World War II, because they “saw the potential for economic development for uranium…Despite the history of abuse and exploitation at the hands of the United States government and business interests, their post-World War II patriotism overrode their suspicion of the U.S.”[15]

The uranium mined from communities like Sweetwater eventually was processed, refined, and enriched to build nuclear weapons. These weapons served as a deterrent to maintain the balance of power in the international arena. By the 1980s, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union (now Russia) had more than 50,000 nuclear weapons.[16] These weapons, from atomicbombs to thermonuclear or Hydrogen bombs, all require enriched uranium. And a portion of this uranium came from the Navajo Nation.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons was caused (in part) by the race to stockpile nuclear weapons. This, consequently, led to the United States, the former Soviet Union, France, Great Britain, and China to develop more nuclear weapons. With these five countries developing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, some smaller and developing countries sought to develop nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes as well. This furthered the proliferation of nuclear weapons,[17] creating an unstable international environment.

Problem Statement

From the perspective of Sa’ah Naghai Bik’e Hozhoon, where all things are interconnected and concern moves from family outward, and where balance with creation and all living things is required. Uranium mining on the Navajo Nation has created an imbalance with both the bila ashdlaii and the natural world. The direct and indirect consequences of this uranium mining are manifest at the Navajo Nation level and at the international level. The consequences have been shown to be deadly and destructive to both humanity and the natural world. While some aspects of uranium, in the form of nuclear energy, has some benefits, the underlying aspects of that power come from uranium, and the consequences of uranium mining has undermined aspects of the Diné lifeway.

Thus uranium mining is problematic for its direct and indirect destructive consequences on the Navajo Nation and the Global community.


Using k’é as an analytic tool, requires further explication of this principle and its many expressions. K’é implies that all creatures and all things in the world are “full of life and intelligence.”[18] Furthermore, it is the foundation of all Diné life ways; it maintains the interconnections between the mind, body, and world. Many using k’é fail to recognize this explicit requirement, many characterize this principle in forms grounded in western thought, that is “by a form of rationality that disengages the mind from the body and the world…”[19] Thus Navajo thinking is tied to expansive familial obligations, ork’é,where concern and reciprocity are mandated.

In the narrative above, which describes the current situation of the Navajo Nation as a result of uranium mining, it is necessary to deconstruct this situation according to Navajo thought, to fully understand both the proximate and global impact.


Diné criteria are largely informed by spiritual principles as they relate to SNBH. As such they are normative criteria by definition. Since the issue of uranium mining is primarily an issue related to the natural world. Some traditional Navajo elders define uranium as the kidney of the earth.[20] With this categorization, uranium then is tied directly to the Natural Law of the Fundamental Law of the Diné as discussed earlier. As such the criteria implied from this law are: air, light/fire, water, and earth/pollen.[21]

The Fundamental Law states that “the four sacred elements of life, air, light/fire, water and earth/pollen in all their forms must be respected, honored and protected for they sustain life.”[22] Air or nilch’i is often characterized as that substance that imbues all creation with life. Furthermore the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act positions air as a natural resource:[23] “…the Navajo Nation’s natural resources…air, light/fire, water, and earth/pollen…are the foundation of…the Diné life way.”[24]Thus air is a natural resource with added spiritual connotations. The spiritual (not religious) dimension of air, light/fire, water and earth/pollen are paramount to the concerns in this analysis.

In addition, the values mandated by k’é are also imperative to this analysis. These criteria would include the impact on both human and animal relations.[25]

Proximate Impact

The chemistry of uranium is such that during its decomposition it emits radiation in the form of gamma, alpha or beta waves. Each of these waves are composed of smaller particles that can attach themselves to air molecules, water molecules, or even to dust particles. It can also be emitted in the form of radon gas. Thus, once exposed and processed (i.e. mined, refined, etc…), this naturally occurring uranium produces radiation, which is easily transferred to one of the natural resources listed above. It contaminates the air, the water, and earth and often travels in the form of light. This contamination destabilizes the natural relationship existing between these natural elements. This affects specifically the Natural Law.

Table 1.0 below shows that uranium has an impact on each of the four natural resources and on the familial system of k’é. As described above, the air, water, fire/light, and earth/pollen are all affected by the consequences of uranium mining, at the Navajo Nation level. Furthermore at the Navajo Nation level, the human or Diné Family has been impacted through the loss of life and the loss of valuable teachings of elders. In addition, as a result of the water being contaminated, animals which drink of that water are also affected.

Table 1.0

Criterion / Enhances Harmony and Balance / Destabilized Harmony and Balance / Not significant impact or no change.
NN / Global / NN / Global / NN / Global
Natural Law / Air / No / No / Yes / Yes / - / -
Light/fire / No / No / Yes / Yes / - / -
Water / No / No / Yes / Yes / - / -
Earth/Pollen / No / No / Yes / Yes / - / -
K’é / Human Family / No / No / Yes / Yes / - / -
Animal Family / No / No / Yes / Yes / - / -
Economic equity / Yes / Yes / Yes / Yes / - / -

The affect creates an imbalance of the natural order, and destabilized the harmony that should exist within families, the animal world and the economic system. The consequences of uranium mining as has been demonstrated has killed thousands of people and injured numerous others. It has contaminated the water and air, and made the water and air toxic. This creates an imbalance in the natural order. In addition, the economic impact of mining had both positive and negative consequences. First, the Navajo Nation benefited monetarily, albeit at low rates, from the leases and royalties of mining and from the creation of jobs for the Navajo people. This made possible a number of changes in the macro-economic structure of the Navajo Nation. However, this monetary gain came at a loss. The opportunity costs of doing businesses without much knowledge and with unconcerned BIA officials resulted in the loss of millions of dollars in revenue and skilled labor force.

This impact on Navajo principles helps one to understand why uranium and its direct and indirect consequences has led (in part) the Navajo Nation Council to find alternative ways to provide energy and to ban uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.

Global Impact

Presently, there are some countries such as North Korea who has successfully tested nuclear weapons. These countries and others seek nuclear weapons for many reasons, but largely as a result of larger more developed countries having weapons, countries such as the United States. The stockpile of weapons in the U.S.was developed (in part) as result of uranium mined on the Navajo Nation. Thus the Navajo Nation has indirectly contributed to the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, and the present proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Thus, the moratorium placed on uranium mining by President Peterson Zah in the early 1990s helped to mitigate, in some small degree, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and its destructive consequences. However, this moratorium and subsequent ban of uranium has placed undue pressure on uranium miners to find alternative places to mine uranium.[26]

Many companies are searching for uranium in developing countries where standards for mining safety are sometimes diluted. This creates a dangerous environment for many miners. Thus traditionally marginalized peoples are subject to lax enforcement of mining standards and are, therefore, exposed to potential illness related to radiation and radon progeny.[27]

Thus the questions from the global perspective are: 1) What is the Navajo Nation’s responsibility now in indirectly contributing to nuclear proliferation? 2) What is the Navajo Nation’s responsibility of passing on the ill affects of uranium mining to other marginalized peoples as a result of banning uranium mining?

Using Table 1.0 can help in answering these questions. The Natural Law has some difficulty in answering these questions so the burden will fall on the principles of k’é to provide some guidance on what the Navajo Nation can do. The principles of k’’é ask what the impact will have on the human family from the global perspective. In that perspective, since the mining of uranium contributed to the development of numerous weapons of mass destruction, k’é would demand that some measure of protection is necessary, but weapons that could annihilate mankind is not requisite for humanity to hold. Second, we can see that the shift from mining on the Navajo Nation to marginalized nations creates undue hardship and even death to the human family. This is not acceptable under the principles of k’é.